MPs attack Blunkett ID card plan
Committee will criticise secrecy, costings and voice fears over intelligence services
Thursday July 29, 2004
David Blunkett's plan for compulsory identity cards will be condemned by MPs tomorrow as improperly costed, poorly thought out, secretive and "lacking in clarity both over the scheme's scope and practical operation".
The MPs, on the home affairs select committee, stress that they do not oppose ID cards in principle. But they express alarm about what they describe as "function creep" once a national identity register is in place. They warn that ministers are already planning to use the ID card scheme as a cover to introduce a national fingerprint system within five years.
Identities may soon be checkable on the national register from CCTV pictures, they predict.
In the report, due to be published tomorrow but seen by the Guardian, the MPs call for parliament to be given powers to oversee the development of ID cards to prevent them encroaching into new areas.
The report warns that once the cards become compulsory it is conceivable that private companies will be able to demand access to the full information held on an individual on the register as a condition of providing a service. The access is "well in excess of what is justified in the fight against serious crime or terrorism".
The MPs dismiss the government's draft bill, published in April, as full of loopholes and handing security and intelligence services "nearly unfettered access to information on the database without the knowledge of the ID card holder". The MPs insist that Mr Blunkett address their concerns before ministers publish a full bill.
They go on to insist that individuals must have full access to the information about them held on the database.
They also warn that the technology involved in biometric testing - implanting a digital facial or fingerprint record into the ID card - is unproven. It is uncomfortable for the individual, and may not prove reliable without highly trained staff.
"There should be exhaustive testing of the biometrics chosen and the results assessed by independent experts, perhaps led by the government's chief scientific officer," the Labour-controlled committee says. Initial tests show as many as one in 100 matches are incorrect.
The select committee's scepticism was echoed yesterday by a leading academic, Dr Farzin Deravi, who runs a re search group on biometrics at the University of Kent. "People get the impression biometrics are ready for large scale deployment, but there are still many unresolved issues and challenges," he said.
Despite their criticisms, the MPs are clear that the Home Office should proceed with the cards because of "their significant role in fighting terrorism", adding that there is no overwhelming constitutional objection to a compulsory scheme.
Nevertheless, the report gives formidable ammunition to those in the cabinet who still want to delay the bill on grounds of cost or the likelihood of an IT disaster.
Leaks from the cabinet in April suggested the foreign secretary, Jack Straw, and industry secretary Patricia Hewitt, were seeking confirmation that the card would only become compulsory following a further parliamentary vote - a position backed by the select committee.
Mr Blunkett said at the weekend he was "really very pleased with the kind of support we're getting ... over 80% in all focus group and opinion polls now saying that people are up for this". He promised that legislation would be published in the autumn, with the aim of introducing the card in 2007. A decision on whether to move to a compulsory scheme is expected to be taken about five years later.
In its report, the committee concludes: "We are concerned by the lack of clarity and defi nition on key elements of the scheme and its future operation, and by the lack of openness in the procurement process ... This is not justified and must be addressed if the scheme is to enjoy public confidence and to work and to achieve its aims in practice."
The MPs also say that the government has not developed coherent proposals for the scheme to become an entitlement card to allow citizens to gain access to public services, condemning the failure as "a missed opportunity".
The MPs add: "We are greatly concerned that the government's procurement process appears to be taking these key decisions without any external reference or technical assessment or broader public debate."
The MPs say they are unconvinced by the need for Home Office secrecy over the costings. "This secrecy is all the more regrettable since the case for an identity card system is founded on whether its benefits are proportionate to the problems it seeks to address: a proper cost benefit analysis is an indispensable element to this."
The Treasury has been sceptical about the cost of the project and the extent to which it will be financed through a private finance initiative.
Two MPs, Labour's David Winnick and Bob Russell of the Liberal Democrats, will issue a minority report rejecting ID cards altogether.